Ronnie Knight is a man who believes his own hype. He’s a rascal, a scoundrel, a loveable rogue - or so he says. And, just in case you were wondering about that embarrassing gangland murder he admitted being involved in, that’s OK, because he now swears it’s not true.
Famous for once being married to actress Barbara Windsor, retired criminal Knight has paid his dues. After a decade spent on the run in the Costa Del Sol, he came home, gave himself up and spent seven years at Her Majesty’s pleasure for his part in the biggest cash heist in Britain - the 1983 Security Express armed robbery in Shoreditch, East London.
In his new book about the crime, which he co-wrote with his brother, John, who masterminded the robbery and - you couldn’t make this up - Detective Superintendent Peter Wilton, who helped catch the gang and suggested the book, you won’t find much soul-searching. At the age of 67, Knight says that he’s not going to change. He admits that, even today, if the right job came along, "it would be hard to say no".
But none of that really matters, because he’s got a conscience now. When he, and his partner, Diane Lumley, pull up in the driveway of the West Lodge Park Hotel, Hertfordshire, in their old beat-up, Mercedes, it’s Lumley I meet first.
At 38, she’s a no-nonsense mother-of-three, with the sort of freshly scrubbed, blonde, wide-eyed looks that make her a perfect foil to Knight’s dapper, old-con style. And whenever Knight’s sense of remorse flags, Lumley, who has been his partner for five years, is there to lead him gently to a higher moral plane.
Immaculately dressed in a black and fawn Gabicci shirt, tailored trousers, shiny patent leather, Patrick Cox look-alikes, with heavy silver rings on the little fingers of each hand, Knight has got that Mafia-chic look down to a fine art - Tony Soprano and his long-suffering wife Carmela spring to mind.
Anyway, we’re all sitting in the foyer of the hotel, close to Trent Park, where the couple like to go walking, near their semi in Barnet, North London.
I admire Knight’s shirt. Lumley tells me, he gets them flown over from Spain.
"I’ve always liked nice things," Knight says, in his deepest Cockney tones. "I’ve always loved looking smart." In his heyday, he had everything. Flash cars, a handful of London pool rooms and clubs - such as the A&R in Charing Cross Road and Tin Pan Alley in Soho, now run by a nephew of legendary gangster, Mad Frankie Fraser - and a glamorous wife. He left his first wife, with whom he had two children, to marry starlet, Barbara Windsor, in 1964.
The relationship lasted for 22 years, before it all ended in tears and bitter recriminations. Windsor, who was often away on film or stage work, found out he was having an affair after hiring a private detective. Their relationship never recovered, but Windsor claims that her remaining love for him "went out the window" when he called her from Spain and accused her of grassing to the police over the robbery.
He would like to set the record straight on a few things regarding Windsor, he says, but Lumley tells him off for saying too much.
"No, you can’t tell her that, Ron - Macmillan’s wouldn’t like it," she says, explaining to me that it’s all in the new book they are writing together.
His 1998 autobiography, Memories and Confessions, which left readers with the impression that Windsor knowingly lent him money for dodgy ventures, was not true, he says. It was written by Knight, from tapes he made in prison, but then it got a little distorted. It turns out that Lumley’s mother and father, Jim and Joy, whom neither of them speak to after they mishandled Knight’s finances, had a hand in it. Which is where it went wrong. But they can’t say too much about that either, as that’s in the next book too.
"A lot of what was told about Barbara wasn’t true," says Knight. "She knew nothing of what I got up to. It made out like she knew everything but she knew nothing. She was always working. I was doing my business, clubs and that and she was doing her work in Birmingham or Manchester or whatever.
"She’d like to read that, you know," says Knight. "She’d like that, ’cos she did speak to Di once. She said, ‘I don’t care, as long as he says sorry.’ She knew. She said, ‘I knew he wouldn’t say things like that.’"
The book’s misrepresentation of Knight’s life went further, he claims. In 1980, Knight was acquitted at the Old Bailey of killing club-owner Alfredo Zomparelli. Yet, in his book, 18 years later, he boasts of how he had hired hitman, Nicki Gerrard, to kill him. Knight’s published confession caused outrage at the time, as he cannot be tried again under Britain’s "double jeopardy" ruling.
Zomparelli was shot dead by two men in the Golden Goose amusement arcade in Soho in 1974, following a four-year prison stretch for the manslaughter of Knight’s 21-year old brother, David. Knight had made no secret of his hatred of Zomparelli after he killed David in a gang fight in 1970, but had several alibis for the night of the Italian’s murder.
But in 1980, one of the two hitmen involved, George Bradshaw, confessed and named Knight as the organiser of the shooting, and he was arrested.
"No, I never had a hand in it," says Knight. "I would have got nicked then. I was told that someone else had a grudge with this Zomparelli. Once I knew he got in there before me, I was sick, ’cos it was my brother and I wanted to do it myself. I admit that, I admitted that in court. The judge said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘I was looking for him myself, but someone beat me too it.’"
When I challenge him, saying that he has since admitted handing over 1,000 for the shooting, he smiles. "Oh yeah. It was a thank-you. When I heard he’d been done in an arcade, although I was sick really because I wanted to do it myself, I felt so pleased. I never gave it to this Bradshaw, I gave it to Nicky Gerrard. A thousand pounds."
Gerrard was also acquitted but soon afterwards was shot and beaten to death near his home in North London in an unrelated dispute.
Knight’s childhood, among the slums of Hoxton, where he was brought up with his three brothers, Johnny, Jimmy and David, and sister, Patsy, was one of poverty and violence. While both his parents were honest, Knight and his brother Johnny were always in trouble with the law, stealing and fighting. They were friendly with the Krays but Knight insists that they never got involved directly with any of the twins’ business.
When I ask why he turned to crime, Knight says: "It’s the way you’re brought up. The only way you could look after yourself is learn to fight. My father made us fight. If I got beaten, my dad took me and stood me in front of the kid and said ‘Fight him now.’ And I knew I couldn’t lose ’cos I would get whacked by my father. When you grew up you wanted to be as good as the other people you’re seeing around you. You start earning money but not the way you should be earning money."
He did have a legitimate job, once, as a scaffolder, he says. "Yeah, but not for long," interrupts Lumley.
Knight begins to laugh. "Well, I was paid to put it up and then, at night, I’d take it down again. Lot of money in scaffolding. Two bob a foot, half a crown a fitting."
It was a lucrative business, the type of scaffolding Knight did - and it paid for his first Jaguar, which cost him 18,000. He went on to deal in stolen goods, a crime for which he served a 15-month prison sentence in 1961. Then it was pool halls, Soho clubs and dealing in what he called "dirties" - escort agencies and pornography - for a while.
He owned bars and restaurants in Spain and bought a villa there in the 1980s, the legendary El Limonar. When his brother, Johnny, and others were arrested for the Security Express robbery in January 1984, Knight flew to his Spanish refuge.
Nowadays, he insists, he is a reformed character, a family man to Lumley’s children, Jessica, 13, Hannah, ten, and William, eight.
He was never a gangster, he insists. "A gangster is someone who walks about with a gun all the time and demands money and gets away with it. I’m a loveable rogue, a rascal, and as for money, I’ve never hit anybody for money."
There are people, I say, who feel there is no such thing as a victimless crime. While his part in the robbery involved only laundering 300,000, doesn’t he feel any pity for the security guards who were held at gunpoint, threatened with being blown to pieces?"
"Yes. Well, obviously you don’t really think of that at the time. They thought the guns was loaded but they wasn’t loaded."
Lumley intervenes: "Being at home with Ronnie, I can tell you that there is a lot of reflection, especially nowadays." She turns to him. "You do, you think about it. It wasn’t right, you know that now." He nods.
We move on to the book, which has been criticised by Scotland Yard. Knight quickly points out that it wasn’t his idea but Wilton’s. "Someone’s got to tell the story - it’s the public that cry out for these books."
Lumley feels that such criticism is hypocritical, as many leading policemen have written about crime. At one point, it was rumoured that Guy Ritchie was interested in turning Knight’s book into a movie, but, to their disappointment, it turned out to be false.
"I spoke to his personal assistant but she told me he wasn’t doing any more crime," says Lumley.
She can only hope that Knight feels the same way. But it’s an uphill struggle. Just two years ago, Knight was fined 200 and banned from Waitrose’s Brent Cross store in North London after being caught stuffing 12 items worth 39.74 into a carrier bag on the baby seat of a shopping trolley.
"I just thought, ‘Oh, sod it,’" he says.
Lumley, who was with him but unaware of the theft until he was stopped.
She says: "I couldn’t believe it. I felt so sad because I know he can’t really help it. He doesn’t mean to hurt anybody but if he can get away with it, he will."
Gotcha, by Ronnie Knight, John Knight and Det Supt Peter Wilton, is published by Sidgwick & Jackson, 16.99.